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Ventura County Mulls Vacation Policy

Over the last two years, employees have cashed out $13 million in 'leave' time. Faced with a money crunch, board considers a revision.

October 07, 2003|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Anticipating years of lean budgets, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors is considering whether it can continue to offer a nearly $7-million annual employee perk that some see as unnecessary and wasteful.

County government workers cashed out $6.5 million in unused vacation time during the fiscal year that ended in June, according to figures supplied by Auditor-Controller Christine Cohen. The payout was higher -- $6.8 million -- for the previous year.

Supervisors have asked county budget managers to look at whether the perk can be trimmed, or perhaps even eliminated, to help the county cope with expected budget shortfalls. Supervisors had to slice $17 million to balance this year's $1.2-billion budget.

Taxpayers' advocates support a review of the benefit, saying the cash-out policy is overly generous and too costly for the government to maintain during lean budget times.

But undoing the perk could be tricky, officials say. Employees represented by unions are guaranteed the benefit in labor contracts and the only way to take it away would be to reopen negotiations, said county Chief Executive Officer Johnny Johnston.

Supervisors also must weigh the fairness of taking away a benefit that many employees have come to expect and consider part of their overall compensation, Johnston said. Government managers, in particular, may be vulnerable because they are not represented by unions, making them an easier target, he said.

Johnston said he would not recommend any changes in the benefit unless the new provisions are applied to all of the county's 8,000 employees. "We're talking about something that has been part of the pay structure for many years now," he said. "We need to move cautiously."

Various unions won the perk in labor negotiations over the last two decades, said Barbara Journet, the county's personnel director. Non-represented managers were given the cash-out option in lieu of a pay raise about a decade ago, Journet said.

Under the agreements, government managers can cash out up to 200 hours of unused "leave" time each year.

In 2003, 640 managers opted to use that provision and cashed out $4.4 million in unused leave. The payout was nearly the same, $4.3 million, for 2002, according to Cohen's figures.

Union members, meanwhile can also cash out a more limited number of accumulated vacation days. Specifics vary according to each of the county's nine labor groups. The largest union, Service Employees International Union, Local 998, can cash out up to two weeks' vacation time after 10 years on the job.

Union employees typically receive 14 days of vacation, working their way up to 24 days after 15 years, Journet said. Represented workers also are entitled to 10 days of sick leave each year, which they can accumulate to a maximum of 100 days.

Once they have hit that cap, they can cash out 25% of each additional sick day that they bank, Journet said.

For the 2002-03 fiscal year, non-management workers cashed out $2.1 million. The payout was even higher for the previous year, $2.5 million.

Supervisors voted unanimously last month to study the policy to make sure it is not out of line with compensation given in neighboring counties.

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